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Karol Wasilewski: “Turkey Has Become The EU’s Adversarial Partner”

Turkey has become an adversarial partner of the EU as the result of several international disagreements and the worsening state of Turkish democracy under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Still, both parties are signaling for new cooperation based on mutual interests in fields such as migration and the economy.
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In an interview with FeniksPolitik, Karol Wasilewski, an expert on Turkey and EU-Turkey relations at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), argues that Turkey has become an adversarial partner of the EU as the result of international disagreements and the worsening state of Turkish democracy. Nonetheless, he observes, both parties are newly enthusiastic to strengthen cooperation based on mutual interests in such fields as migration and the economy. Still, Wasilewski notes that the parties’ differing expectations of the future shape of EU-Turkey relations will all but ensure that tensions persist.


Hamdi Firat Buyuk (HFB): In your latest analysis at PISM, you describe Turkey as an adversarial partner of the EU. Could you please elaborate on this?

Karol Wasilewski (KW): When we observe EU-Turkey relations, especially recently, we can see that Turkey sometimes behaves like an adversary. For instance, Turkey is using diasporas in countries like Germany and France to destabilize European societies and to influence the position of European governments. This is a tool often used by adversarial countries. Nonetheless, despite this behaviour, most European countries still want to maintain relations with Turkey due to their own political interests or Turkey’s strategic importance to the EU. Even if we may have forgotten recently, the EU and Turkey share foundational common interests in the fields of energy, economic cooperation, and migration. This is a dilemma that is very important to understand. The EU’s approach towards Turkey was criticized after the recent visit of President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen and President of the European Council Charles Michel to Ankara. Yet, in my opinion, when we understand that Turkey has become the EU’s adversarial partner, then we can also understand that the EU’s offered approach is the only one that would function in contemporary EU-Turkey relations.

HFB: Do you believe that Turkey could still become a full member of the EU? What is your expectation for the future of EU-Turkey relations?

KW: For the foreseeable future, I don’t see any chance of Turkey becoming a full member. This is mostly because Turkey is unwilling to fulfil the Copenhagen criteria, but also because the EU isn’t currently able to absorb new members. This mostly boils down to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s fight for survival: to survive politically, he needs to be authoritarian and authoritarianism means that Turkey drifts further away from fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria. At the same time, I still see great potential for EU-Turkey cooperation, and I think what the EU has been trying to offer Turkey over the last few months is a signal pointing to this cooperation. This relational framework is based on mutual interests and seeks to strengthen long-term cooperation in various fields, whether economically through a modernised customs union or with respect to migration and anti-terrorism efforts. This new model hasn’t been established yet, and many barriers in both Turkey and the EU stand before its implementation. For instance, the EU wants this model to be based on proportional and reversible engagement, an approach that has been repeatedly underlined by EU leadership. Turkey, however, wants quick progress because, frankly, it desperately needs it, especially on the economic front. Ultimately, for this unique approach to be successful in the future it is vital for the EU to maintain unity on the topic. This may be difficult because of expected quarrels between the Germany, Spain, and Italy camp, which wants relations with Turkey to flourish, and the France, Greece, and Cyprus camp, which wants to see a tougher stance vis-à-vis Turkey. After all, the unresolved Cyprus issue is the elephant in the room when discussing the future of EU-Turkey relations. This year’s elections in Germany and next year’s in France will also certainly play a role in shaping the future of EU-Turkey relations. Interesting dynamics would surface if the Green Party came to form a part of the future German government; and in France, President Emmanuel Macron’s approach to Turkey has been criticized by the right wing, which could force him to become more hawkish.

HFB: Do you think that the departure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel could cause more confusion in the EU when it comes to the topic of Turkey?

KW: Merkel’s departure from politics is a huge unknown. German foreign policy towards Turkey under Merkel was quite coherent. Germany operates under the assumption that Turkey is an important partner that needs to be brought to the table. It has been Merkel’s approach to try to understand Turkey’s actions to a certain extent. For instance, when President Erdogan launched his anti-Western propaganda campaign, Merkel approached this as business as usual. This only incited Erdogan to employ more anti-Western rhetoric because he was sure that he wouldn’t have to pay a price for his actions. This touches on a salient change in EU-Turkey dynamics: the EU wants Turkey to be aware of the costs of acting against it (the “stick) and not just focus on the benefits of strong EU ties (the “carrot”). With Merkel gone, this tendency may gather pace, especially if the Green Party takes on a more important role in the German government. This raises another question: why did the EU decide to begin using the “stick” or at least signal that it might use the “stick”? Observing German foreign policy over the last year, we can see that it is seriously considering changing the course of its policy towards Turkey. We can also see strong signs of change in Italy; and “Turkey fatigue” is on the rise in Spain and Poland, some of the most pro-Turkish countries in the EU.

HFB: As we discussed, authoritarianism is rising in Turkey and there are no signs that this will change any time soon. Still, at the same time, public support and the political opposition’s support for the EU agenda is increasing. What is your take on this?

KW: It is important to remember that, although rising, Turkish authoritarianism is not fully established yet. This means that Turkish opposition still has a chance. However, the next elections in 2023 (or earlier) might not be free and fair because of the government’s expansive control over the media, the state apparatus, and general public perceptions (especially with regard to its influence on social media). Still, public opinion polls, and MetroPoll’s surveys in particular, predict President Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to receive less than 30 per cent of the total vote. This is very surprising for many Turkey experts when considering the common understanding that 30 per cent is supposed to be the rock-solid base of the AKP and Erdogan. Rapidly diminishing support for the AKP may be the one reason why the EU shouldn’t officially suspend accession negotiations with Turkey. While Turkey’s democracy may have been seriously harmed by the actions of President Erdogan, he hasn’t killed it. This is especially true when we observe the successes of the opposition in the most recent local elections in 2019 and the rising popularity of opposition politicians such as Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas, either of whom would beat Erdogan in the next presidential elections.